For the past three hundred years, teachers and students of the keyboard have used the Anna Magdalena Notebook as a trustworthy source of pieces suited to beginner and elementary level players. Existing in two books dating 1722 and 1725 respectively, Notenbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach consisted of minuets, polonaises, marches, and the famous Aria of the Goldberg Variations. It was given to her as a gift by her husband Johann Sebastian Bach (OBM). Early drafts of his five distinguished and elegant French suites first appeared in this notebook as well as several vocal pieces and compositions by eminent contemporary composers. Chiefly known as Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena has been a subject of five German books in recent years. She was also the star of a fictitious diary written by an English author Esther Meynell (OBM) in 1925. The Anna Magdalena Notebook even inspired a Hong Kong movie titled Anna Magdalena in the late 90s.
The world famous Minuet in G from the Notebook formed the basis of a Cantonese pop song and, of course, the 1965 hit Lovers Concerto by the US pop girl group The Toys.
Lately, the name of Anna Magdalena Bach has been a hot topic and has made appearances in mainstream media since an Australian Professor Martin Jarvis (MGBH) argued that Anna Magdalena could have been the composer of the famous Cello Suites, and not Johann Sebastian Bach himself. But for most musicians, Anna Magdalena is habitually brushed aside as a complementary figure in the life of the great J.S. Bach and the dedicatee of the Notebooks. Apart from this, little is known about her, and it was, therefore, an appeal to embark on an investigative journey to discover more about her and, possibly, the status of female musicians in the 1700s. The investigation has not been so easy. Hard evidence, surviving letters, and documentation on Bach are comparatively scarce. The information about her available in English is even more limited. Despite these constraints, details of her life as a woman who was married to one of the greatest composers ever lived, could provide a window for modern readers to understand the domestic musical life of the Baroque era.
Anna Magdalena was in fact a professional singer employed by the court prior to her marriage to J. S. Bach. This was a higher category of employment compared to most musicians of the time and was most definitely awarded due to a high level of musical ability.
Anna Magdalena Bach, née Wilcke, was born into a musical family in 1701. Based in Weissenfels- the Saxony-Anhalt region of Germany, her father was a court trumpeter and her mother – a daughter of an organist. The details of the meeting between J. S. Bach and Anna Magdalena are unknown and much of what is known about her is focused on her post marriage life. Anna Magdalena was in fact a professional singer employed by the court prior to her marriage to J. S. Bach. Documentary evidence shows us that she had the official position of a chamber musician which she held for 2 years. This was a higher category of employment compared to most musicians of the time and was most definitely awarded due to a high level of musical ability.
At age 20, Anna Magdalena married J.S. Bach, who was 16 years her senior. The ceremony took place at their home by command of the Prince in 1721. As a young wife, she immediately assumed the role of a stepmother of four children and was possibly responsible for their musical education when Bach was unavailable. J.S. Bach’s first wife Maria Barbara (OBM) passed away suddenly in 1720 while Bach was away. One of the children from that marriage was his most famous son Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (OBM), who was still young at the time of his mother’s death. Anna Magdalena soon became a mother herself. Alongside being a mother, a stepmother, and a co-leader of a busy musical household, she was listed as a godparent of J.C. Hahn (OBM), a son of a footman to the Prince. The Bachs were not known to have written any diaries and, therefore, documentation on their domestic life is, unfortunately, scarce. Yet, there is a precious letter, in which Bach describes his domestic situation and family musical ensemble to his friend Georg Erdmann (OBM), the Imperial Russian residence agent in Danzig, which provides a rare glimpse of life inside the Bach household.
Upon examining the obituary on Johann Sebastian written by his second eldest son, Carl wrote extensively on his birth mother Maria Barbara. Apart from a brief paragraph, Anna Magdalena was only referred to as a “widow [who] is also still living” on the list of surviving Bach family members.
When she entered the Bach household, she gave birth almost every year for 13 years. Seven of her offsprings did not survive, but her surviving children included the celebrated son of Bach, Johann Christian (OBM), who was described as “the apple of Sebastian’s eye and his favorite pupil.”
Life must have been difficult for Anna Magdalena. When she entered the Bach household, she gave birth almost every year for 13 years. Seven of her offsprings did not survive, but her surviving children included the celebrated son of Bach, Johann Christian (OBM), who was described as “the apple of Sebastian’s eye and his favorite pupil.” Moreover, the Bach house was a musical hub in Leipzig at the time, and many guests frequented the house. Not only did the lady of the house prepare to take care of her guests’ wellbeing during their visits, she also organized numerous musical evenings for the family and visitors.
Bach’s eldest son Carl described the Leipzig household as a “pigeonry.” For a period of time, Johann Elias Bach (OBM), son of Johann Sebastian’s first cousin took up the position as the master’s secretary, where he was in charge of correspondences, administrative work, and other tasks. It is evident that he was fond of Anna Magdalena. In August 1741, when Johann Sebastian was away, he wrote a letter to Bach on behalf of the household regarding his wife’s illness and referred to her as “our most lovable mama” (4). On another occasion, Johann Elias wrote a letter on behalf of Bach to obtain carnation flowers and a singing bird for his aunt “to brighten up her hard life” (5). It is through Johann Elias’s account that we learn of Anna Magdalena being ‘a great connoisseur of gardening” who very much appreciated life’s simple pleasures.
Upon receiving the flowers, it was noted that “she values this unmerited gift more highly than children do their Christmas presents and tends them with such care as is usually given to children” (6). Heinz Gärtner (MGBH), the biographer of the musically talented Johann Christian, noted that ‘”Christian’s temperament and Anna Magdalena’s likable personality are clearly evident.” He describes Johann Christian’s manner as cheerful and ingenuous, “pure and naive” in contrast to the calculating, shrewd business sense of his brother Carl. As one of the oldest sons, Carl left home early to pursue his career in Berlin, so he was no longer financially dependent on the Bachs. However, Anna Magdalena and Johann Sebastian’s eldest son Gottfried Heinrich (OBM) caused the couple many troubled days. Despite showing promise in music, he was described as “feeble minded,” and was not able to attend normal schooling like his other male siblings. He was mentally handicapped and “did not fully develop” requiring Anna Magdalena’s constant attention.
Upon receiving the flowers, it was noted that “she values this unmerited gift more highly than children do their Christmas presents and tends them with such care as is usually given to children”
As noted earlier, Anna Magdalena pursued a career as a professional singer in the Cöthen Court Chapel between 1721 and 1723. There had been remarks stating that she ceased her professional engagements after her marriage. However, surviving accounts authenticate her performances alongside her husband during birthday celebrations of Princess Charlotte (OBM) and the funeral procession of Prince Leopold (OBM). In J.S. Bach’s letter to Georg Erdmann (OBM), he refers to Anna Magdalena as his “present wife [who] sings a good, clear soprano.” As a part of a husband and wife team, she helped garner almost half of the annual household income, earning 200 thalers at first, which was then increased to 300 thalers subsequently, granted by the Prince. Her role in Johann Sebastian’s life also involved being his copyist, in which she prepared fair copies of the cello suites, violin partitas and sonatas, organ trio sonatas, major sections of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and Kyrie and Gloria of the B minor Mass, several cantatas, vocal and instrumental works. Yo Tomita (MGBH), the eminent Bach scholar, noted that her copies are “often the most important primary sources when Bach’s autographs do not survive.” Other notable scholars such as Paul Badura-Skoda (MGBH) remarked that the handwriting of husband and wife are extremely similar, and Tomita observed that their handwriting intertwined “in such a manner that they must surely have discussed something about the copies they were making together.”
As a part of a husband and wife team, she helped garner almost half of the annual household income, earning 200 thalers at first, which was then increased to 300 thalers subsequently, granted by the Prince.
Indeed for the untrained eye, it is a challenge to distinguish the differences in manuscript writing between the husband and wife. As a loving husband, Johann Elias remarked that his cousin constantly looked out for gifts for Anna Magdalena and he even had her painted by court painter Antonio Cristofori (OBM). Unfortunately the painting has been lost, but this is testament that this practice was rather unusual for a woman of her social standing.
After Johann Sebastian died in 1750, Anna Magdalena outlived him for 10 more years and passed away at the age of 59. Due to the size of the family, J.S. Bach’s possessions were divided between his nine surviving children and Anna Magdalena. Her financial state very quickly took a downward turn as we read petitions of hers as a “most sad estate of a widow.” She wrote to the council appealing for a death benefit and on two occasions fought for the guardianship of her own children, promising never to marry again. At this juncture, she was left with two sons and two daughters aged 9-18. There is an absence of documentation of her life after this period, except that she was left in a desolate state and was only offered a funeral as an “almosenfrau” – an impoverished woman. On her funeral notice posted in Leipzig in 1760, the figure ¼ was written in the margin, indicating a funeral of the simplest category with only a quarter of students singing in comparison to a funeral of normal practice at the time. It is puzzling, indeed, to learn that none of her surviving children were able to provide for her in her final years, but as the author Heinz Gärtner noted, this was, perhaps, a reflection of the general status of women at the time.
On her funeral notice posted in Leipzig in 1760, the figure ¼ was written in the margin, indicating a funeral of the simplest category with only a quarter of students singing in comparison to a funeral of normal practice at the time.
Anna Magdalena Bach juggled multiple important roles during her lifetime. Professionally, she was a talented singer, assistant, copyist, and public performance partner alongside her husband. Domestically, she was his companion, mother, wife, manager of a busy household and occasional performer on musical evenings. Her manuscript copies are some of the most important sources of Bach’s music when autographs are missing, and it is difficult to imagine the state of Bach research without her pertinent contributions.
Although it may never be possible to prove whether she did in fact compose any music, Anna Magdalena’s life, nevertheless, provides a lens for modern day researchers to examine the state of professional female musicians and the status of women musicians in the late Baroque period.
(1) Bach, Johann Sebastian, and Vivian Langrish. Eighteen Selected Pieces from A Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach: Pianoforte. London: Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, n.d. Print.
(2) Bach, Johann Sebastian. Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Ed. Ernst Günter Heinemann. N.p.: Henle Verlag, 1983. Print.
(3) Badura-Skoda, Paul. “Let’s Get Rid of the Wrong Pralltriller!” Early Music 1st ser. XL1 (2013): n. pag. Web.
(4) Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. N.p.: Deckle Edge, 2013. Print.
(5) Gärtner, Heinz, and Reinhard G. Pauly. John Christian Bach: Mozart’s Friend and Mentor. Portland, Or.: Amadeus, 1994. Print.
(6) Geiringer, Karl, and Irene Geiringer. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Culmination of an Era. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.
(7) Jezic, Diane, and Elizabeth Wood. Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found. New York: Feminist at the City U of New York, 1988. Print.
(8) Lockwood, Lewis, Edward H. Roesner, Alvin Harold. Johnson, and Robert L. Marshall. Essays in Musicology: A Tribute to Alvin Johnson. Philadelphia?: American Musicological Society, 1990. Print. The Notebooks for Wilhelm Friedemann and Anna Magdalena Bach: Some Biographical Lessons
(9) Tomita, Yo. “Bach Network UK | Facilitating Bach Dialogue Internationally.” Bach Network UK Welcome to Bach Network UK Comments. N.p., 2007. Web. 04 Sept. 2016. Anna Magdalena as Bach’s Copyist
(10) Wolff, Christoph. The New Bach Reader: A Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.
About the author
Jacqueline Leung is a Hong Kong based concert pianist and educator. She was trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. She has performed on four continents and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician, lecturer and adjudicator. Alongside music, her passions include traveling and cooking. She also holds a MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong.